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Woe to them that are at ease in Zion.
The secure alarmed
There is something very agreeable and desirable in ease. Yet, strange as the declaration may appear, this tranquillity is too common; and to disturb it should be our design. For your peace may be a false peace. Before an earthquake the air is uncommonly serene. Ascertain precisely the characters whose delusions we wish to destroy.
I. Some are at ease in Zion from selfish insensibility. Such there were in the days of Amos. In a similar way to Amos, Isaiah upbraids the Jews. There are still many whose attention to their own indulgences regulates all their actions. Our dispositions ought always to correspond with the providence of God, and the purposes for which He placed us in the world. For the unfeeling wretch conscience has no kind office to perform. For him no orphan prays, no widow sings. For him the evil day comes on charged with every horror. He has no asylum in the feelings of the community, the happiness of whose members he never sought.
II. Some from infidel presumption. If there be any truth in the Scriptures, the dispositions of the generality of mankind are very unsuitable to their state and their destiny. What is this ease which flows from infidel persuasion?
1. It is obtained with difficulty.
2. It is partial, and liable to interruption.
3. The less liable it is to be disturbed, the more awful; for it is penal.
4. This ease is fatal. Its duration is momentary; it must end, and end in anguish and despair.
III. Some from vain confidence; relying on the goodness of their present state, and on the certainty of their future happiness. There is such a thing as spiritual self-flattery; there is such a thing as a delusive dependence on religion.
1. This confidence keeps them from looking after salvation. They are too good to be saved.
2. This course will terminate in woeful surprise and disappointment.
IV. Some prom practical indifference. You would much offend persons of this class, were you to inquire whether they believed the Scripture. These persons are not to be charged sentimentally with anti-nomianism or any other error. They know the Gospel in theory; but they are strangers to its Divine efficacy. Of all the various characters we have to deal with in our ministry, these are the most unlikely to insure success. We preach; you acknowledge, and admire,--but you discover no more concern to obtain the one thing needful we propose, than if you were persuaded we called you “to follow a cunningly devised fable.” Your life is a perpetual contradiction to your creed: you are not happy, and contrive not to be miserable. Inferences.
1. They are highly criminal, who countenance and promote a state of carnal ease.
2. Let none be troubled when they find their connections distressed and alarmed with a sense of their sin and danger.
3. Nothing is so much to be dreaded as false security in religion.
4. There is consolation for those who are distressed. We do not applaud all their doubts and dejections, but these painful scruples are easily accounted for, and they lie on the safe side. (William Jay.)
I. The state of mind that is reproved in this passage.
1. It includes carnal security (Amos 6:1).
2. It includes presumptuous unbelief (Amos 6:2-3).
3. It includes sensual indulgence (Amos 6:4-6, first clause).
4. It includes selfish indifference (Amos 6:6, last clause).
II. The justice of the woe denounced against it.
1. Such a state of mind indicates a lurking enmity against God.
2. Indicates insensibility to the claims of Jesus.
3. Indicates a deep-seated unbelief of coming judgments. (G. Brooks.)
The danger of indifference to spiritual things
I. The state condemned. God’s threatenings had been declared against the kingdoms of Judah and Israel, but the people confided in their fortifications and external advantages, or in their profession of being the people of God; thus they carelessly indulged themselves, and were heedless about consequences, though destruction impended over them. The application of the passage to the conduct of many under the means of grace is natural and easy. The state of mind condemned is--
1. Expressive of careless indifference.
2. It is expressive of false security.
The persons warned in the text were regarding themselves as secure on false and uncertain grounds. So many are now found perverting the doctrines of the Gospel, and promising to themselves security in such per version. Or they pretend that they arc waiting for God’s time, when He will afford them necessary help. They make their moral inability, or in other words, their unwillingness to receive Christ and His Gospel an excuse for their continued disobedience, and attribute their rebellion and unbelief to the want of God’s help, rather than to the state of their own hearts, to the love of sin, and to their unwillingness to yield submission to the Saviour’s authority. Others make their moral conduct a ground of hope. Their honesty, their kindness to their neighbours, and the propriety of their general deportment are substituted for faith in Christ, and a cordial reception of His Gospel.
3. It is expressive of a state of sloth. Many professors are thus at ease. Once they were anxious, inquiring, full of apparent desire after the favour of God and the blessings of salvation, and of activity ‘in the Saviour’s cause. But their zeal, activity, and ardour have passed away. They are slumbering and sleeping.
II. Mark the place where this state of mind is exercised. If slothfulness and indifference are unseemly in other spheres, are they less so in Zion, in the house, in the Church of God? If they are injurious to our temporal concerns . . . are they less so to our spiritual and eternal interests? Restricting the term “in Zion” to the place where God is worshipped, to His sanctuary, we remark--
1. That in Zion the law of God is declared. Its purity, its justice, its spiritual character and extensive requirements are set forth. In Zion we are shown the harmony of the law with the Gospel, while it becomes the means of preparing us to receive salvation.
2. In Zion the Gospel is proclaimed. Here the most constant theme is salvation through the Saviour s blood. Here Jesus is evidently set forth as crucified among us. Can you be at ease in Zion, cold and insensible, with the Cross in view, and indifferent to the Saviour’s voice addressing us therefrom?
3. Zion is the special residence of Christ. Jesus is now represented as King in Zion, as the Ruler and Head of His Church.
III. The danger to which this state of mind exposes.
1. How opposed to all spiritual improvement.
2. How expressive of contempt for spiritual blessings.
3. How ruinous to our eternal interests. (Essex Remembrancer.)
Sinners in Zion described and doomed
I. Consider the persons here mentioned. They are described as being “at ease in Zion.” The temple was called Zion. The name was gradually extended to the worshippers, so that it came to embrace all who profess to know and worship God. To be in Zion means to be in a land where the true God is known and worshipped, where religious privileges, similar to those of the Jews, are enjoyed. Taking the word in a more limited sense, to be in Zion is to be among those who statedly meet for the purpose of religious worship. Or it may include only those who have made a public profession of religion. The ease here intended is ease not of body, but of mind; ease relating not to our temporal but to our religious or spiritual concerns. Persons are at ease when they feel neither sorrow nor alarm on account of their sins; when they are seldom troubled by the admonitions of conscience; when they arc not engaged in working out their salvation with fear and trembling, but feel quiet and secure. This unconcern respecting themselves is usually accompanied by at least equal unconcern respecting the salvation of others. Such persons are described as “not grieved for the affliction of Joseph”; that is, for the evils and calamities that afflict the Church. This body may be divided into several classes, corresponding with the various causes to which their ease is ascribed.
1. Those who deny that any punishment will be inflicted on sinners. This includes infidels of every description; those who deny God’s government of the world; those who contemn God; and the scoffers. In this class must also be placed those who believe that all men will be saved. False prophets who cry “peace, peace,” when there is no peace.
2. Those who allow that sinners will be punished, but who deny, or do not appear to believe, that they are sinners. They find, or fancy that they find none better than themselves, few so good, and very many worse. Hence they conclude that they arc in no danger, that they have nothing to fear, and of course feel easy and secure. Such persons are without the law. They know nothing of its spirituality, strictness, and extent. They have never tried themselves by this rule. They are like a man buried in sleep, totally unconscious of their true character and situation, insensible of their sins, and of the danger to which their sins expose them.
3. Those who acknowledge that they are sinners, and that sinners will be punished; and yet they are at ease, for they contrive in various ways to persuade themselves that though other sinners will be punished, they shall themselves escape. Such persons, though habitually, are not always at ease. They have times of anxiety and alarm. It is their way by promises and resolutions to put off the evil day. They trust to a future convenient season. There is perhaps no class of sinners whose situation is more dangerous. This class also includes all who entertain a false and groundless persuasion that they have already become pious, obtained the” pardon of their sins, and secured the favour of God. The reasons why persons feel such a persuasion are various.
II. The woe which is denounced against them in our text. The doom is expressed in general terms; in terms which may include curses and threatenings of every kind. Why are such characters thought worthy of a punishment so severe?
1. Because the ease which they feel proves that they belong to the number of the wicked. All who are habitually at ease in Zion know nothing of true religion. They are either careless sinners or self-deluded hypocrites.
2. They are not only sinners, but sinners of no common stamp, sinners whose guilt and sinfulness are peculiarly aggravated, and whose punishment will therefore be peculiarly severe. He who is at ease in Zion must be deaf to God’s voice, blind to God’s glories, insensible to every spiritual object; he sins against light and against love.
3. There is little reason to hope that they will ever repent. On what grounds can we hope for the salvation of those who are at ease? If they cannot be roused, if their false peace cannot be disturbed, they must inevitably perish; and to rouse them, humanly speaking, seems impossible. (E. Payson, D. D.)
The Church warned against supineness
While Amos unveils the transgressions of Israel, he does not spare the sins of Judah.
I. The persons here referred to. Those who are “in Zion.” The class of persons spoken of are the members of the visible Church, the professing people of God. Regard the professing Church--
1. As solemnly devoted to holiness and God.
(1) They are so by the immediate and express purpose of God Himself. He has created them anew in Christ Jesus. And He has done this for His own glory.
(2) They are so by the intention of their Divine Redeemer. He has done and suffered much for them. To redeem and raise up a holy Church is the object which is the solace of all the Redeemer’s labours, the mead of all His sufferings.
(3) They are devoted to holiness in baptism. The ordinance of baptism is the expressive type and sign of the sprinkling of the efficacious blood.
(4) They are thus devoted by voluntary covenant. Every Christian is such by his free choice.
2. As the appointed instrument in the evangelisation of the world. The Church of Christ is designed to be a benevolent institution. They are appointed “witnesses” for God to an unbelieving and perishing world.
(1) They are eminently fitted for this. They are themselves awakened and alive to the dangerous condition of every unconverted man. They know too the way of deliverance. And
(2) they have the command.
3. As a mediator with God on behalf of a perishing world.
(1) The renovation of the moral world depends upon the agency and operation of the Holy Ghost. The Word of God itself con tains no inherent or independent efficacy to convert mankind.
(2) The bestow meat of the Spirit is frequently and distinctly promised, but always in answer to prayer.
(3) Hence prayer is made the Christian’s primary duty. Jesus both by precept and by example urged it upon His followers.
II. The sin charged upon them. “They are at ease.” Consider--
1. Their spiritual condition. They are devoted to holiness; are they holy? The spiritual state of Christians generally is not such as to warrant their being at ease. Every scriptural view of their character and duty involves the obligation of strenuous exertion.
2. The state of the world. The Gospel has now been preached over eighteen hundred years, and what is the result? Look at your own family and domestic circle. Look at the inhabitants of your town and neighbourhood. To how small a proportion of our race have even the tidings of the Gospel yet been conveyed.
3. Another reason for uneasiness is that the success of the Word must always arise from the agency of the Holy Spirit.
III. The judgment denounced. Under stand--
1. In the sense of a simple prophecy, as the prediction of a calamity likely and even certain to ensue.
2. It is the language of righteous retribution. That there is an equitable correspondence between sin and its consequences is testified by all experience.
3. It is the language of Divine denunciation. God is a just God, and a terrible. The sceptre of His mercy may become the rod of His wrath. If by our supineness, our unfaithfulness, our inconsistency, our sin, we have caused to be shed the blood of souls, shall we escape, think you, the just judgment of God? (John G. Avery.)
At ease in Zion
The text practically applies to all nominal and professing Christians.
I. What is meant by those who are at ease in Zion? Lazy Christians. Christianity is more than profession, it is even something more than faith. It is carrying into practice the truths we profess. The soul that is at ease sits down very contentedly on his mere profession, and mistakes earth for heaven.
II. What is the cause of being at ease in Zion?
1. There is ignorance of the nature of Christian life. Christianity is not ease, but labour. It is a daily struggle against unbelief and sin. The man at ease does his religion by deputy, or trusts entirely to the “mercy” of God, or relies on outward service and participation in form and ceremonies.
2. There is a dislike of the duties to be undertaken. Self-denial is not congenial to the natural heart. Labour is hateful, conflict repulsive, and therefore men sit down and dream away their opportunities.
3. Self-confidence. Disaster seems so unlikely. We fancy we are so secure that nothing can move us. Our prosperity, our privileges, our apparent tranquillity deceive the heart and lure the soul to sleep.
III. The result of being at ease in Zion.
1. It generates sin.
2. It merits the displeasure of God.
3. It will end in entire destruction. (G. Wood, M. A.)
The “policy of drift” easy
Unless you make for the great things of your life, for I am not talking about the little things of life, many of which are best deter mined by circumstances--unless you make for the great things of life, the deliberate choice of the better part, you have in effect made the disastrous choice of the worst. The “policy of drift” always ends in ruin for a nation, for an army, for an individual. And it is plain enough that it is so, because, to the superficial observer, it is a great deal easier, and a great deal pleasanter, to take the low levels than to climb; and there are far more, and very clamant voices calling to us from out of worldly things to eat, and drink, and take our ease and be merry, and let ideals alone, than there are summoning us to the loftier, harder, more heroic, Christlike course of life. It is hard work taking a great junk up the Yang tse-Kiang. Hundreds of trackers have to strain every nerve and muscle as they go stumbling over the rocks on the bank, with great cables on their shoulders, and slow progress is made. It would take a week to get as far up as they can travel coming downwards in a day, without any trouble. Ay, and what is that that the idle crew begin to hear, as they lie half somnolent on the deck, enjoy ing the repose? A groaning sound, the roar of the rapids. To go down stream is easy, but there is a Niagara at the far end. You choose the worse when you do not deliberately choose the better. That is true all round. If you do not coerce, by a deliberate act, your will, or your inclination, the baser sort of them will get the upper hand of you. Take away the police, and the mob will loot and riot. (A. Maclaren, D. D.)
The inner life of a nation determines its destiny
It is not the increase of the outer man and his surroundings and possessions, but the renewal of the inner life and spirit which makes the net profit and abiding wealth. It is the inner life of a nation that determines all things, not the visible, but the more or less invisible, not what can be arrayed in figures and statistics, but what no figures can express--not the show and splendour of prosperous times, the glare of wealth, the blaze of knowledge, the surfeit of luxuries, the pomp of pride, the flaunting of power, but the hidden qualities of patience, faith, self-mastery, courage, righteousness, and purity which lie underneath all this external display. It is the soul of a nation that makes a nation, not its body. If the soul is not sound, the body soon becomes a mass of weakness and decay. France is wealthier than it ever was before. It has more splendid cities, larger armies, greater intellectual resources and material resources than ever before; the outward man was never so fair and strong as now. What of all that if the heart has ceased to beat with honest purpose, if its ideals are lost, if the inner life has become diseased, defiled, corrupt? The outward show slowly rots away, when the inspiring force within degenerates and disappears. It is the continued renewal of the inner man that saves all. (J. G. Greenhough, M. A.)
Degrading moral transitions
The phases of transition in the moral temper of the falling Venetians, during their fall, were from pride to infidelity, and from infidelity to the unscrupulous pursuit of pleasure. During the last years of the existence of the State, the minds both of the nobility and the people seem to have been set simply upon the attainment of the means of self-indulgence. There was not strength enough in them to be proud, nor forethought enough to be ambitious. One by one the possessions of the State were abandoned to its enemies; one by one the channels of its trade were forsaken by its own languor, or occupied and closed against it by its more energetic rivals; and the time, the resources, and the thoughts of the nation were exclusively occupied in the invention of such fantastic and costly pleasures as might best amuse their apathy, lull their remorse, or disguise their ruin. It is as needless, as it is painful, to trace the steps of her final ruin. That ancient curse was upon her, the curse of the cities of the plain, “Pride, fulness of bread, and abundance of idleness.” By the inner burning of her own passions, as fatal as the fiery rain of Gomorrah, she was consumed from her place among the nations; and her ashes are choking the channels of the dead salt sea. (John Ruskin.)
Pass ye unto Calneh, and see; and from thence go ye to Hamath.
This was a Divine challenge to Israel. Israel in those days thought that religion was often a great hardship; that it abounded with demands for self-denial; and that its numerous duties could be observed only at considerable cost. You generally find that the least self-denying are the most keenly conscious of their self-denial. In those days the people of Israel were willing to be religious, after a fashion, but they must be also politic, so that their religion should not militate against their national interests, or weaken them in their struggle with the heathen powers by which they were surrounded. Israel practically said: “Cast among these godless nations, there is nothing for us to do but largely to adapt ourselves to circumstances; to obey God’s commandments as far as it is practicable, but not henceforth, as in the past, to sacrifice national interests by a too scrupulous attention to religious precepts.” We have in the text God’s reply to Israel’s fallacy. “Pass ye into Calneh.” Calneh was a great city on the Tigris. Hamath was also a great city, and a capital, on the banks of the Orontes, on the north. Gath was one of the great cities of Palestine. God now practically says to Israel: “Look at those powers, those centres of worldly empires and governments. You say that they have nothing to hamper them; that they fight their battles irrespective of right and wrong; that no principle is at stake; that their aim is self-aggrandisement; and therefore that the path of victory is to them a far easier one than it can be for nations who, like yourselves, have to fear God and to keep His commandments. See, what is the practical issue. Compare your national prosperity with the prosperity of these surrounding nations. Are their borders greater than your borders?” That was the question which practically silenced their complaint. What are the relative compensations of godliness and worldliness? In what consists man’s highest interests or his greatest wealth? Does true blessedness consist in what the world calls success? Take--
1. The life of the thorough worldling--the man who has no principle to hamper him, and to whom the highest law of life is self-aggrandizement. Such as the spendthrift. The man with an insatiable love of money. The gambler.
2. Those who are determined to make their position in the world. Such an one enters business, or a profession, and considers that it is necessary to adopt certain customs which are not above suspicion, but which become largely respectable by their universal acceptance. Even in such cases there are hundreds of thousands who fail entirely in their attempts. Some undoubtedly do prosper and accumulate wealth; but in how many instances have they lost their good name in the effort!
3. The honest man of the world. Even then business may be allowed to monopolise all his time and all his energy, to the exclusion of higher aims, without Which even an honest life is poor. There is a distinctly spiritual work for man to do. If that Christian work is neglected, and the claims of Jesus Christ along spiritual lines ignored, that man may gain the whole world, but he will lose his soul. (David Davies.)
Ye that put far away the evil day, and cause the seat of violence to come near.
Man’ s evil day
I. All men have an evil day in their future. Calamities and trials are common to all. There is one evil day, it is death; but it need not be evil.
II. Some men adjourn in thought this evil day.
1. Not because they have any doubt as to its advent.
2. Not because they lack reminders of its approach. Why then do they adjourn the thought? The reason is found--
(1) In the strength of our material attachments.
(2) In our lack of interest in the spiritual.
(3) In our dread of the mysterious.
(4) In our conscious unpreparation for the scenes of retribution.
III. None who adjourn this evil day in thought can delay it in fact. These men so ignored their coming calamities that by their conduct they hastened them on. A general truth is suggested here,--That a man who adjourns all thought of his end, will pursue such a course of conduct as will hasten its approach. (Homilist.)
The knowledge of sin
Only history can tell what sin is; nothing but Divine judgment can give you a definition of bad doing. We must watch the desolation if we would know the meaning of certain terms and the range of certain actions. We must study Divine judgment if we would know human sin. The difficulty of the teacher herein is that so many persons are unconscious of sin and are therefore mayhap the greater sinners. Some do not distinguish between crime and sin. They have not been criminals, and therefore they think they have not been sinners,--as if all the story of life did not lie in the disposition rather than in the action. The heart is the seat of evil. None knoweth the heart but God. The heart does not know itself; and if there were not a concurrent line called history, or providence, or judgment, we should never know the real state of the heart. We must go to the broader history, the larger experience of mankind, and find, not in it alone, but in it as interpreted by Divine providence, God’s meaning of the term sin. (Joseph Parker, D. D.)
They are not grieved for the affliction of Joseph.
Personal sympathy the only right basis for Christian effort
The term “Joseph” is here employed for the whole of the people of the kingdom of Israel. The term “Ephraim” is usually employed by way of reproach when the sin and rebellion of the whole people are referred to, while the more illustrious name of “Joseph” is apparently reserved for occasions that call for pity and compassion. The idea here appears to have been suggested by the heartless conduct of Joseph’s brethren when they made away with their brother, without pity for his youth or respect for his piety. So the prophet, describing the rich men and rulers of his time, says, “They drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the chief ointments; but they are not grieved for the affliction of Joseph.” In this chapter we have a terrible picture of a corrupt, degenerate commonwealth. The prophet, with a noble plea for patriotism, turning from the miseries of the lower to the heartless luxuries of the higher ranks, sees nothing in the future but national ruin. The principle he establishes is this,--The life of a nation depends on the healthy exercise of sympathy throughout all its parts, all its ranks and classes. How shall we apply this principle, and the warning that accompanies it, to ourselves? I am not one of those who would willingly indulge in reflections upon the character of the age in which we live. I do not see the wisdom of making a disadvantageous comparison between these and past times, as if our forefathers were in all respects wiser and better than we. But I am not bound to shut my eyes to the signs of the times, nor cease to reprove the evils of the times. Is not a want of union and sympathy throughout all ranks of the nation as characteristic of our age as of the age of Amos? Our divisions, political and religious, when taken in connection with our great prosperity and liberty, are the surprise and the ridicule of the whole world. Of all power in the world there is no force equal to the moral force of sympathy. This is the power that takes strongest hold, and enables us to wield empire over the hearts of men. Personal influence and kindness--thus we may form an estimate of tim comparative failure of so many of our benevolent institutions. Tried by these Divine rules of conduct, how does the benevolence of many who have earned a reputation for charity, pale before that which may never be able to go beyond kindly words and secret intercessory prayer. Charity ceases to be charity if it is unaccompanied by tenderness and courtesy. By sympathy is meant an entrance into the circumstances, a true realisation of the position of those whom we seek to benefit. Jesus came down at first from heaven, and still administers His way of salvation by the exercise of sympathy. The same mind that was in Christ Jesus must and will animate every true disciple. He will be impelled to seek out sinners, and lead them to their Saviour by kindly advice and loving persuasion; not by cold reproofs and pharisaic condemnation, but by brotherly sympathy, because he is like that Saviour who came “not to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” (Joseph Maskell.)
The ruin wrought by a selfish spirit
We belong to the greatest empire that this world has ever seen, and not only is this the vastest empire, but it is also the most opulent. Ours is an empire teeming with wealth, genius, and splendid possibilities, With this vast empire, with this rich and manifold civilisation, what is our particular peril? Let me say it in a word--selfishness. If historians are to be believed, selfish indulgence ruined the ancient empires; if some of the most capable and dispassionate critics living are correct, selfish indulgence is ruining France. Selfishness in various subtle forms is a far greater menace to this empire than any foe that threatens the silver streak. Selfishness is the worm to spoil your roses, whether they belong to York or Lancaster. Selfishness is the canker upon your gold; selfishness is the moth to fret your purple, and selfishness is the creeping paralysis that may eat out the strength of this empire and spoil its splendour and its fame. Wherein lies our safety? In spiritual magnanimity! If you want to take care of your empire, take care of your missions. It is a strange thing to say, but the guarantee for your splendour is your sacrifice. You are going to keep your wealth just as you give it away in noble causes. The tonic for your luxury is the generosity that does and dares for the perishing; and if you want to keep your place with the topmost nations you will keep your place at the top by taking a tremendous stoop to those who are at the base--the lost. When you bring your learning, or wealth, or political mastery, and when you associate them with pity, humanity, and magnanimity, you have got a supreme safeguard upon all your greatness and glory. (W. L. Watkinson.)
Endosed within self
There is a little pool in a mountain chasm, so completely enclosed within its high and rocky walls that no sound reaches it from the great outer world. Yet the slightest noise started within its environ ment--the cry of the heron, the splash of the muskrat, or the roll of the pebbles under the feet of the deer--reverberates over the water and is echoed from the cliff. Some minds are so enclosed within their own selfishness as to be silent to the great things which stir the world--the calls of human need, the summons of God to public duty, and all the onrolling cause of human progress in many lands. They live only among their own thoughts, desires, and prejudices. To them their little concerns are great. (L. A. Banks, D. D.)
When William Burns was asked the nature of his thoughts on finding himself among the Chinese, he turned to his interrogator and answered, “The lost, and a Christ for them.” When Henry Venn preached, such was his flaming fervour that “men went down before him like slaked lime.” It was the same yearning which drove John Brown to nightly and prevailing intercession for “dead Haddington, and wicked, withered East Lothian”; the same which wrung from Rowland Hill the cry, “Oh that I were all heart and soul and spirit, to tell the glorious Gospel to perishing multitudes!” Would that I burned out for Jesus with the same intense and ardent glow! (A. Smdlie.)
Careless indifference of Christians
I know a beautiful valley in Wales, guarded by well-wooded hills. Spring came there first, and summer lingered longest, and the clear river loitered through the rich pastures and the laughing orchards, as if loth to leave the enchanting scene. But the manufacturer came there; he built his chimneys and he lighted his furnaces, out of which belched forth poisonous fumes night and day. Every tree is dead, no flower blooms there now, the very grass has been eaten off the face of the earth; the beautiful river, in which the pebbles once lay as the pure thoughts in a maiden’s mind, is now foul, and the valley, scarred and bare, looks like the entrance into Tophet itself. And this human nature of ours, in which faith, and virtue, and godliness, and all sweet humanities might flourish, in miles of this London of ours, is what bad air, and the gin palace, and the careless indifference of a Christianity bent only upon saving itself, have made it. (Morlais Jones.)
Shall horses run upon the rock?
will one plough there with oxen?
Labour in vain
These expressions are proverbs, taken from the familiar sayings of the east country. A proverb is generally a sword with two edges, or, if I may so say, it has many edges, or is all edge, and hence it may be turned this way and that way, and every part of it will have force and point. The connection would tolerate two senses in this place. An ancient commentator says that it has seven meanings. Like those curiously carved Chinese balls in which there is one ball within another, so in many a holy text there is sense within sense, teaching within teaching, and each one worthy of the Spirit of God. It may be that the prophet is expostulating with ungodly men upon their pursuit of happiness where it can never be found. They were endeavouring to grow rich and strong by oppression. And if any of you try to content yourselves with this world, and hope to find a heaven in the midst of your business and your family, without looking upward for it, you labour in vain. To seek after happiness in evil deeds is to plough a rock of granite. To labour after true prosperity by dishonest means is as useless as to till the sandy shore. The words may mean this,--God will not always send His ministers to call men to repentance. There is a time of ploughing, but when it is evident that the heart is wilfully hardened, then wisdom itself suggests to mercy that she should give over her efforts. Taking that sense, we remark--
I. Ministers labour to break up men’s hearts. They would make hearts ready to receive the heavenly Seed. Many truths are used, like sharp ploughshares, to break up the heart. We must cut into the heart with the ploughshare of the law. If we really love the souls of men, let us prove it by honest speech. The hard heart must be broken, or it will still refuse the Saviour who was sent to bind up the broken-hearted. There are some things which men may or may not have, and yet may be saved; but those things which go with the ploughing of the heart are indispensable There must be a holy fear and a humble trembling before God, there must be an acknowledgment of guilt and a penitent petition for mercy; there must, in a word, be a thorough ploughing of the soul before we can expect the seed to bring forth fruit.
II. At times ministers labour in vain. In a short time the ploughman feels whether the plough will go or not, and so does the minister. He may use the very same words in one place which he has used in another, but he feels in one place great joy and hopefulness in his preaching, while with another audience he has heavy work and little hope. All labourers of Christ know what it is sometimes to work in heavy soil. There are rocky hearers in all congregations. On some impression is made, but it is not deep and permanent. Certain of these rocky-hearted people have been ploughed for years, and have become harder instead of softer. The sun which softens wax hardens clay, and the same Gospel which has brought others to tenderness and repentance has exercised a contrary effect upon them, and made them more careless about Divine things than they were in their youth. Why are men so extremely rocky? Some are so from a peculiar stolidity of nature. Some are hard because of their infidelity. Worldliness hardens a man in every way. With many hardness is produced by a general levity. There is no depth of earth in their superficial natures; beneath a sprinkling of shifting, worthless sand lies an impenetrable rock of utter stupidity and senselessness.
III. It is unreasonable to expect that God’s servants should always continue to labour in vain. Labour in vain cannot be continued for ever if we consider the ploughman. Then there is the Master to be considered. Is He always to be resisted and provoked? And there are so many other people needing the Gospel who will receive it. There is a boundary to the patience of men, and even to the patience of God.
IV. There must be an alteration then, and that speedily. The oxen shall be taken off from such toil. It can be effected in three ways.
1. The unprofitable hearer can be removed so that he shall no more hear the Gospel from the lips of his best approved minister.
2. Another plan is to take away the ploughman. Or
3. God may say, “This piece of rock shall never trouble the ploughman any more. I will take it away.” The man dies. O Lord, break up the rock, and let the seed drop among its broken substance, and get Thou a harvest from the dissolved granite at this time. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Ye have turned judgment into gall.
Man’s perverting power
The meaning of this is that they had turned the best things into bad use. See the working of this perverting power in many departments of action.
I. In physical operations. Everywhere you see man perverting nature, perverting the metals, the rivers, the fruits, and the chemical elements of the world to bad and mischievous uses.
II. In civic life. The principle of human government is a Divine ordinance, intended to secure equal justice and protection. But how has man perverted it! He has turned it into an instrument to benefit the few at the expense of the many, an instrument of tyranny and oppression. Man’s perversion of the law is proverbial as a hideous enormity. The principle of merchandise, intended to band man together by the exchange of commodities, in mutual obligation and fellowship, man has awfully perverted. He has made it the instrument of cupidity, monopoly, and nameless frauds.
III. In the religious sphere. Do not let man say he has no power. His moral power is something stupendous. He has power to turn the things of God to the use of Satan, heavenly blessings into hellish curses. (Homilist.)
Ye which rejoice in a thing of nought, which say, Have we not taken to us horns by our own strength?
Human joy in the unsubstantial
“Horns” are signs and symbols of power; here they stand for the military resources with which they fancied that they could conquer every foe. “These delusions of God-forgetting pride the prophet cast down, by saying that Jehovah, the God of hosts, will raise up a nation against them, which will crush them down in the whole length and breadth of the kingdom. This nation was Assyria” (Delitzsch).
I. To rejoice in worldly wealth, is to “rejoice in a thing of nought.”
II. To rejoice in personal beauty, is to “rejoice in a thing of nought.” But is this beauty a thing to rejoice in? Those who possess it do rejoice in it; many pride themselves on their good looks and fine figures. But what is beauty? It is a “thing of nought.”
III. To rejoice in ancestral distinction, is to “rejoice in a thing of nought.” There are those who are constantly exulting in their pedigree. But even had we come from the loins of the intellectual and moral peers of the race, what in this is there for rejoicing? It is truly “a thing of nought.” Our ancestry is independent of us, we are not responsible for it. It is not a matter either of blame or praise.
IV. To rejoice in moral meritoriousness, is to “rejoice in a thing of nought.” There are many who rejoice in their morality. Like the Pharisee in the temple, they thank God they are not as “other men.” Moral merit in a sinner, is a baseless vision, a phantom of a proud heart. No, our righteousness is “a thing of nought.” (Homilist.)
Our own strength a “thing of nought”
The Christian life is something more than what we call a moral life. The mere moral life is one which begins to be and grows simply by voluntary, conscious, self-originating deeds and choices. It is “self righteousness” in Paul’s sense of the word. The Christian life no less has conscious choices, but something more is builded into it, something spiritual and real out of God. Here is an illustration. Plant a grain of wheat in a wet sponge kept moist by a bowl of water. It will grow and grow rapidly, fed on itself and water, but directly its tall stem leans, limp and weak, to break at last., and wither and die before it bears fruit. It was self-nourished; its growth was out of itself. Now plant another like grain of wheat in the earth. It grows, not so quickly; but it is having builded into it lime and phosphorus and iron out of the earth, and its tall stein bends at last also, but with the weight of “ the full corn in the ear,” the fruit of its union with the strength of the earth. So the Christian life and growth are the strength of God, builded by Him into the character. It is the spiritual element, thus wrought into our life by the higher Nourisher of our souls, which gives us character and moral strength; and that process, though unconscious, is a real happening. (S. B. Meeser.)
We take to ourselves the credit of our good things
Why is it we are so slow to realise this? Partly, I think, because we are wont from so much of our life to shut God out. “It is ever the nature of Galloway,” says Mr. Crockett in one of his stories, “to share the credit of any victory with providence, but to charge it wholly with any disaster.” “Wasna that cleverly done?” we say when we succeed. “We maun juist submit,” we say when we fail. And Galloway nature is very much like human nature all the world over. We make God responsible for our evil things; the credit of our good things we put down to ourselves. (Helping Words.)
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Amos 6". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/
the Sixth Week after Easter